Born In Damascus

Quietly poignant short documentary about the filmmaker reconnecting with her Syrian cousin.

Laura is a Syrian Scot who spent her holidays visiting family in Syria. The film includes old family movies of their trips, with Laura giddily filming everything. The country is so beautiful. A clear open blue sky, verdant hills covered in wildflowers, its gorgeous coastline with sea spanning to the horizon. The bright cities with sandy white stone buildings, busy shopping districts, and theme parks where she played with her cousins.

There is this image that is used of war torn places over and over again, you know it, the grey photo of the bombed out buildings of a neighbourhood. It’s a image so overused it gives a sense of inevitability. In the constant repetition of this same tableau, it’s as though somehow the cause and effect have reversed, and it’s looking grey and rubble-strewn that made the war occur rather than the other way about. It seems to invite the viewer to shake their head and ask why ‘those places’ can’t get their shit together. When I was young those bombed out streets belonged somewhere in the Balkans, but as I grew it migrated to the Middle East. That style of war reporting flattens everything to an anonymous warzone, this travelling circus of war that seems to stop in all these broken neighbourhoods, and it strips places of both their identity and their agency.

The images of Syria in this film are of a place resplendent with many enviable credits, a place where war and its attendant ruination are unthinkable. Laura plays with her cousins on a log flume slide, and squishes into photos with them in their warm and welcoming home. They go shopping, take selfies.

Lujain is Syrian and lived through the war. She fled as a refugee to Canada, where she’s now settled and has made a family of her own, with an infant son. When her cousin Laura FaceTimes her, it’s the first they have seen each other in almost 10 years.

Born in Damascus is split between these old home movies and these new images of family from afar, on Facebook, Instagram, FaceTime. The slightly janky old camcorder shots of the crowd of family in their spontaneous and informal moments, are replaced with perfectly posed and flawless looking photos of individuals on either side of the world.

Laura and Lujain never entirely lost touch, and the film includes their online chats during the war. The medium of social media is so often associated with the trivial and mundane, topics for which the typical misspellings, lack of punctuation and use of emojis is entirely in keeping. It feels like a weird contrast to see it used to discuss war. Lujain talks about a bombing near her home, and asks Laura to pray for her.

Born in Damascus is a short film about the effects of war. Images of the war itself are almost entirely absent. This is not about the spectacle and machismo of wholesale destruction, but the quiet recovery of people and families in the wake of devastation. How do loved ones reconnect when the roads they’ve travelled have become so different? How do young people rebuild after their teenage years were taken from them? A really interesting film.

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